Lessons from Foot Soaking

Larry Adams was about to commit suicide by jumping onto the tracks of an oncoming subway. Suddenly a woman who he did not know walked up to him, put her arm around his shoulder, and said: “Come walk with me.”  She took him to a clinic she ran on Pine Street in Boston.

The woman was Barbara McInnis, a registered nurse (RN), who has been described as proof that angels do exist. Nurse McInnis was born in 1935 in Boston. After becoming an RN, she worked in the ER at Boston City Hospital.

An opportunity to visit a homeless shelter on Pine Street became the defining moment in giving her the life’s purpose she became known for. She became aware of how many of those in the homeless shelter were facing serious health challenges. She and some of her nursing colleagues agreed to operate a health clinic for a month-long trial. That trial has now led to a clinic system that is over 50 years old.

The clinic began as a nurse-only facility because they didn’t think doctors were trained properly. They tended to scare patients and that led to many of them “running away”. When Dr. Jim O’Connell agreed to work at the clinic for a year, she retrained him.

When Dr. O’Connell first arrived at the clinic, he was asked to put away his stethoscope. He was then asked to soak the feet of a patient. Dr. O’Connell started talking and a relationship started to develop. When Dr. O’Connell had seen the patient in the ER, he had refused treatment. Now he was open to the treatment that Dr. O’Connell recommended.

Nurse McInnis focused the treatment in the clinic on the development of personal relationships based upon the treatment of patients with dignity. Once that relationship was established, patients were more accepting of treatment recommendations.

Over time, the Pine Street Clinic began to deal with epidemics of AIDS and TB. The services provided by the clinic were also expanded. One of these was an Overnight Rescue Van that searched out what were referred to as rough sleepers: those who slept outside no matter the weather. The van provided food (soup), blankets, and on-site medical treatment. The Pine Street Clinic has expanded to three clinics in hospitals and 75 clinics in places where the homeless frequent. A homeless shelter known as the Barbara McInnis House has also been established.

At the age of 67, Nurse McInnis was in an automobile accident that cracked her femur. During minor surgery, she had a lethal interaction of anesthesia and diabetes medicine. When she desperately called Dr. O’Connell for help, he tried his best to alert the medical staff to her critical condition but no one would listen. She died as a result of the lack of attention she received at the hospital. Her disappointment with how doctors were trained followed her to her death.

* * *

I was lying alone like a ship that had sunk,
Shivering and sick from the booze I had drunk,
The highway was roarin’ right over my head,
The city of Boston had left me for dead,
When along comes a woman as big as a bear
In an old overcoat with a scarf in her hair,
A kind voice but tough like she’d paid her dues,
My name is Barbara, would ya like some hot soup?

Barbara McInnis, a friend of the poor,
Standing there with us through hard times and more,
Barbara McInnis, the salt of the earth
May the world someday remember her worth…

Written by Ben Tousley, folk singer

How To Use

Useful guides for incorporating messages into discussion.